The facts about road building

It's time to squash some myths about road building:

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MYTH: We can build our way out of congestion.

FACT: No, we can't. Road building just generates more traffic growth. New capacity makes journeys quicker in the short term, so people drive more often and even move further from work where houses are cheaper. Traffic also relocates from other congested roads. Traffic generation from new roads was studied for years and resulted in a landmark report by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) called ‘Trunk roads and the generation of traffic’, HMSO, 1994. This is the only major study into trunk roads and traffic growth and concluded that new roads generate new traffic growth.

A major independent study (Beyond Transport Infrastructure, a pdf) into the impact of the Newbury bypass and 2 other road schemes showed that traffic levels predicted for 2010 in Newbury were already reached by 2003 – and that traffic had increased by almost 50% in that period. New development around the road was partially to blame for the increases.

MYTH: Drivers pay road tax so have a right to new roads

FACT: Roads are paid for out of general taxation and council tax. Motorists originally paid a 'road fund license' which was ring-fenced to pay for road building and repair. However this was abolished in 1926, by then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill, who feared that the fund would lead to drivers feeling that they owned the road.

Modern 'road tax' - Vehicle Excise Duty - goes into general taxation. Roads are either paid for from council tax (in the case of smaller, local road schemes) or general taxation (for larger, regional and national schemes). Pedestrians and cyclists therefore contribute just as much towards the cost of road building and maintenance as drivers.

MYTH: We have to use our cars.

FACT: Not all car journeys are essential. Work by consultancy Transport for Quality of Life shows that 40% of journeys could be done by other means, another 40% could be changed if there was a small amount of investment, whilst only a 20% could not be done without a car.

Most journeys are short, even in rural areas, and could be done by cycling or walking. 23% of car journeys are less than two miles, which is less than a half-hour walk, or about a 10-minute bike ride (see the National Travel Survey, a pdf, page 16).

We could also reduce the need to travel, by stopping the closure of small hospitals, shops and post offices – and improving rural buses would help people in the countryside get about without their cars. There’s still plenty of scope for improvement!

MYTH: People love cars and won’t give them up.

FACT: Nearly half of Britain's drivers say they could already use their cars less often. The British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted annually since 1983, found that about 80% of people think the current level of car use in the UK is having a serious, detrimental effect, and 66% say everyone should respond by using vehicles less often.

45% of drivers were willing and able to find other types of transport. Another 12% were able to use the car less, but unsure whether they were prepared to do so. And 18% were willing to cut back - but unable to do so for lack of public transport or safe routes for walking or cycling.

MYTH: There are no alternatives to driving.

FACT: We need more investment in the alternatives, but that won’t happen if we pour money into road building. Interim results of the Sustainable Travel Towns pilot run by the Government and Sustrans have been a great success – reducing car use by over 10% and increasing levels of public transport use, walking and cycling. This is at a fraction of the cost of road building.

Car clubs are a great alternative to private car use, and can reduce car use by over 60% (pdf). Many short journeys could easily be walked or cycled, and investing in buses and trains would give more people alternatives to driving.

MYTH: More road capacity is necessary for the economy.

FACT: Not according to the only major Government study into the economic benefits of road building. The impact of transport on the economy was studied by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment who reported in their 1999 SACTRA report that new roads are not necessary for economic growth: "the empirical evidence of the scale and significance of [economic benefits from road building] is weak and disputed."

The SACTRA report found that extra roads can even make poor areas worse as people and businesses use the new link to relocate or commute out. The Thames Gateway Bridge is an excellent example of this: the inspector rejected the bridge because it would bring lots of cars through poorer areas but do nothing to regenerate them.

Last updated: 12 May 2010
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